Strange Days in Seattle...An Eco-Protest At the WTO
Free Trade and Biotechnology Help Feed the World. But That's Not Good Enough for Greens Aiming to Disrupt the November Summit
September 29, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
September 24, 1999
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-Farm trade reform is the best hope of future prosperity for the world's farmers.
It is also the best hope for saving Asia's rain forests and their wildlife from the increasing appetites and affluence of 4 billion protein- hungry Asian consumers.
So you might think that the November meeting of the World Trade Organization, scheduled five years ago expressly to consider farm trade liberalization, would have the enthusiastic backing of everyone concerned about preserving wildlands.
But ironically, if farmers want freer trade, they will have to overcome frenzied opposition from "green" activists.
Eco-groups are planning a "Festival of Resistance" at the WTO's meeting in Seattle. The eco-activists are hoping to force mass arrests of their demonstrators to publicize their struggle to prevent what they call an economic system based on exploitation of the planet.
A California group, The Ruckus Society, is offering a weeklong "boot camp" that will teach its eco-trainees to scale barbed-wire fences and reach upper stories of buildings.
The Web site for another group, the NorthEast Resistance Against Genetic Engineering, states: "Thousands of leaders of transnational corporations, government officials and an army of bureaucrats will come to the WTO summit to further their drive for profits, and their control over our political, economic and cultural life, along with the environment."
The groups, which claims the acronym NE RAGE, argues that "economic globalization" and "free trade" just "disguise the poverty, misery and ecological destruction of the world's current social and economic systems."
The group makes the protest sound like a re-enactment of the original Woodstock music festival, promising tens of thousands of people will "reclaim the streets with giant street theater, puppets, celebration, music, street parties and pleasure."
A group called the Direct Action Network Against Globalization has more ominous plans. "We are planning a large-scale, well-organized, high- visibility action to shut down the World Trade Organization on Tuesday, Nov. 30. The WTO has no right to make undemocratic, unaccountable, destructive decisions about our lives, our communities and the earth."
The activists accuse the World Trade Organization of being undemocratic. Yet the WTO was created by the representative governments of the world to create more affluence and to permit more of the world's people to worry about the environment, instead of hunger in their children's bellies.
Citizens of developed nations enjoy technological abundance and can be proud that increased knowledge and freer trade have helped Third World incomes soar.
Since World War II, incomes have grown from near-starvation levels to $1,500 per capita in India; $3,000 in China; $3,800 in Egypt; and $5,400 in Poland.
Environmental activists seem opposed to wealth (at least other people's) because they think rich people demand too many resources from the environment.
They haven't realized that it's poor people who must destroy forests for firewood and low-yield farmland, who burn too much soft coal in air- polluting furnaces and poach endangered wildlife.
The activists warn that free trade will harm the environment. However, the biggest environmental question for the 21st century is feeding the 4 billion affluent people Asia without destroying tropical forests to grow low-yield crops.
That challenge cannot be met without higher-yield farming and freer trade in farm products.
Environmentalists claim that the WTO takes food safety decisions away from consumers. But the WTO simply believes that any "food safety" trade barrier must provide real food safety against a documented danger.
Most of the recent food scares in the developed nations have been fabricated, like the scare campaigns against pesticide residues, animal growth hormones and antibiotics in livestock and poultry feed.
The most urgent issue for the environmentalists is a global ban on genetically modified foods.
But the World Trade Organization won't let them have it. No biotech product with a demonstrated danger to the public or the environment has ever been approved by either national or WTO authorities.
Of course, biotech could be misused, just as cars and dynamite have at times been misused. But the cost to the world of giving up biotechnology in food may be very high indeed.
Several new biotech strategies already seem likely to make the world a better, safer place for both people and wildlife.
"Golden rice" could overcome Vitamin A and iron deficiencies, which afflict more than 3 billion people.
New acid-soil crops would permit high crop yields in much of the tropics, helping protect the forests.
Herbicide-tolerant crops are already allowing us to eliminate the weeds that steal nutrients and moisture from our food crops.
The street theater in Seattle may turn out to be fun. Perhaps some of the local farmers should join in. By cheerfully dramatizing the environmental benefits of saving Asian tropical forests through high yields and free farm trade, the farmers could both educate green activists and share in their media attention.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.